Top Republican to Obama: Don’t bypass Congress on climate

Obama’s speech gave a nod to the prospect of congressional action, though largely to justify forging ahead without lawmakers if they don't act.

He vowed new executives steps if Congress doesn’t act to create a “market-based” solution akin to the cap-and-trade bill that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and now-retired Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) floated years ago.

“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” Obama said.

But despite Obama’s reminder of a prominent Republican’s (McCain's) past efforts on global warming, emissions-capping legislation is currently dead in Congress, facing very heavy GOP opposition and resistance from some centrist Democrats.

A big cap-and-trade and energy bill narrowly passed the House in 2009, but a version that Lieberman and former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote collapsed in the Senate in 2010, and legislation has been deeply buried since.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a liberal senator who is among Capitol Hill’s most aggressive advocates of acting on climate, said Obama’s vow of executive action could help revive legislation.

“Unless and until the polluting industries see strong executive action coming at them, they are going to continue to stonewall and deny and not participate in anything meaningful in the Congress,” Whitehouse said after the speech.

“I think . . . it will take strong executive action to get them to pay attention and come in and work with us and find a legislative solution,” Whitehouse said in the Capitol, noting that legislation provides avenues that are more “flexible” for industries.

Obama’s speech didn’t detail what executive actions he would take, but atop environmentalists’ to-do list is setting carbon emissions regulations for existing power plants, which create over a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in a 2010 legal settlement, agreed to create a program for existing plants, but it has not yet moved ahead.

Green groups were pleased with Obama’s full-throated vow in the speech to attack climate change with his administrative powers.

“We applaud President Obama for restating in no uncertain terms, in tonight’s State of the Union address, the obligation he and the nation have to address climate change,” groups including the Center for American Progress, Environment America, the Environmental Defense Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and several others said in a joint statement Tuesday night.

“The president has the authority to act and we, and the American people, are ready to work with him to face this great challenge of our time. In fact, more than 3.2 million comments have been collected from Americans that support limiting carbon pollution from existing power plants,” the groups said.